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US Congress Moves Closer to Approving Sanctions Against Syria

The U.S. Senate Tuesday approved new sanctions against Syria in an effort to press Damascus to end what lawmakers say is its support for terrorism and its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

By an 89 to four vote, the Senate followed the lead of the House of Representatives and passed the Syria Accountability Act.

The measure tightens diplomatic and economic sanctions against Damascus until the U.S. government certifies that Syria has stopped providing support for terrorism, ended its military occupation of Lebanon, ceased efforts to produce or acquire weapons of mass destruction, and stopped terrorists and weapons from entering Iraq.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "I support this bill, which is based on the presumption that modifying Syria's behavior requires a tough response," he said.

The Senate's top Democrat, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, also backed the bill. "It appears to many of us that the point where we can continue to sit back and hope for Syria to change course has passed. The time has come to show Syria that continued inaction will no longer be tolerated, and will come at a price," he said.

The measure would ban U.S. trade with Syria in items that could be used in weapons programs. It also calls on the President to impose at least two out of a list of six possible sanctions, including reducing diplomatic contacts, freezing Syrian assets, barring U.S. businesses from investing in Syria, restricting travel in the United States by Syrian diplomats, and banning exports of U.S. products other than food and medicine to Syria.

New sanctions would have more of a political impact than an economic one, as bilateral trade only amounts to about $300 million a year.

The Senate bill is similar to the one passed by the House last month, except it gives the President more power to waive sanctions if he believes they are not in U.S. national security interests.

The House must approve the change before the bill goes to President Bush.

The Bush administration initially opposed the measure on grounds it would go too far in restricting its diplomatic efforts in dealing with Damascus. But it lifted its objections after it accused Syria of ignoring its requests to do more in the fight against terrorism.

Washington also accuses Damascus of allowing terrorists to pass into Iraq to attack U.S.-led occupation forces. Syria says it is working to secure the border and calls on the United States to do the same on the Iraqi side.

Syria is on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, the only nation on that list to have full diplomatic relations with the United States.

Meanwhile, a U.S. congressional delegation met in Damascus Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The leader of the group, Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona, called for greater dialogue to help reconcile what he called major differences between the two countries.